Purple Magazine
— The Brain Issue #33

The language forest



julien bismuth is a french artist and writer based in new york city. his work explores cross-cultural communication and has been shown at the guggenheim museum in new york; the palais de tokyo and the national gallery of the jeu de peume in paris.


DRIFTS I was invited to write about the internal cosmos of the brain for this issue, specifically its relationship to language. I’m neither a neurologist nor a linguist, but like many visual artists today, my work often leads me to drift into other fields. In recent years, I’ve found myself working closely with a group of linguists and anthropologists in Brazil who study its indigenous cultures and languages.

My interest in this field was sparked by a debate on the nature of human language and its relation to cognition, revolving around the singular tongue of the Pirahã people. Several years ago, I stumbled upon an article on this seminomadic indigenous group living in the Amazon forest in Brazil and their language. It focused on the linguist Daniel Everett’s work with them. Everett claims that the Pirahã language contradicts Noam Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar, namely because, according to him, it does not possess recursion, i.e., the capacity to build a complex sentence. I was heading to Brazil for a residency and contacted Everett to find out more about his research. I met him in Boston, and he referred me to Marco Antonio Gonçalves, an anthropologist who had also worked with the Pirahã. After meeting Marco in Rio de Janeiro, my curiosity turned into fascination, not only with the Pirahã, but also their dialogue and their interaction with Marco.

Soon after our first meeting, Marco invited me to join him on his next visit to the Pirahã. We went there twice, in 2016 and 2017. In the interim, I met other linguists and anthropologists, and traveled to meet two other indigenous groups: the Maxacali, in 2015, and the Guató, in 2019. I was invited to visit the Maxacali by the linguist Andrew Nevins, the anthropologist Gustavo Godoy, and the linguist Mário André Coelho da Silva, to help document their nascent sign language. Recently, I was invited by the same Gustavo and the linguist Kristina Balykova to assist them in their efforts to help revive the Guató language by recording its two surviving speakers. The project had been initiated by the Guató people. As with the Maxacali and Pirahã, I would give my footage to the indigenous group and their affiliated researchers in exchange for being able to use it for my own work. As Gustavo explained: I had witnessed the birth of a language with the Maxacali; I had then encountered the enduring vitality of a uniquely foreign tongue with the Pirahã; and with the Guató, I would come to witness the death throes of a language, “linguistics for the end of the world.” A better formulation would be linguistics for the potential end of a world — in this case, the world of the Guató.

WORLDS The linguist Bruna Franchetto once offered the following description of the fragility of these other worlds. Indigenous languages like Pirahã, she said, are profoundly tied to the speakers’ culture and their environment. Tear down the forests, and the cultures and languages that bloomed within them will die. Kill the language, and the culture will die. Change or eradicate the culture, and the relationship to the natural environment will change and be replaced by ours, bringing about its exploitation and destruction. The linguists and anthropologists whom I met in Brazil are also tireless activists for the groups they work with, and often serve as mediators between their world and ours. A similar mediation is evident in their research. The study of these profoundly “other” cultures constantly leads them to call into question their own methodologies and perspectives. This profoundly ethical and critical form of engagement with cultural difference — a relationship of listening and defending, rather than talking over and eradicating — seems all the more necessary in today’s increasingly divisive times.

SHIFTS I can only observe the activity of thought by means of language. I cannot conceive of thought outside of language, because I can only think within the space of language by means of words and their composition into phrases, questions, propositions, metaphors. To study language is thus to engage with a disconcertingly reflexive form of speculation. As the linguist Jean-Claude Milner has said, linguistics is a science without an observatory, for in order to have an objective perspective on language, one would have to place oneself in the impossible position of “no longer being a speaking subject.”

WOODS In Dante’s On the Eloquence of the Vernacular, the poet describes the Italian vernacular as a roaming panther who “leaves its scent in every city but resides in none.” He goes on to describe this trail of scent as inconsistent and differentiated, in keeping with his earlier description of language after Babel: “In the aftermath of the great confusion that brought nothing else than oblivion to whatever language had existed before, and since human beings are highly unstable and variable animals, our language can be neither durable nor consistent with itself; but like everything else that belongs to us (including manners and customs), it must vary according to distances of space and time.”

In Walter Benjamin’s essay on translation, the author resorts to the following metaphor: “Unlike a work of literature, translation finds itself not in the center of the language forest, but on the outside facing the wooded ridge; it calls into it without entering, aiming at the single spot where the echo is able to give, in its own language, the reverberation of the work in the alien one.”

The trail of a scent. An infinite hunt. An echo. Each of these images carries within it the idea of a distance separating its protagonists. In Benjamin’s image, the sender is also the receiver of the echoing call, but the sound that returns has been altered and estranged by its looping journey. The interval that forever separates Dante’s hunter from his prey is also what keeps the hunt alive. It’s the space that language requires in order to resonate like an echo or trail like a scent, the space that both separates and binds the protagonists of any act of speech, any instance of language.

ORIGINS A few weeks ago, my friend Gustavo Godoy sent me an email in which he described a myth of the Ka’apor people, in part to show how these narratives also contain theories about language and its origin: “One of the versions of the Ka’apor narrative on the origin of the world states that in the beginning there were only thoughts in the wind. Once they started to develop into ideas and communicate, they chose to emerge from the trunks of different trees. To cite from a Ka’apor song: when the wind blows, the tree calls. The call of the trees is the sound of their trunks hitting against one another and resounding in the wind. To call, appeal, invoke. The wind of thought is expressed in a clamor of tree trunks.”

If I have said very little about the brain, it’s perhaps because I cannot help but think of that word as a marker, a shifter for the thinking subject, forever one among many, erring within an unstable and proteiform landscape. In the hunt for the answer to the riddle of language, specifically of language as the medium of thought, the mind acts like a sense organ to track the elusive trail of its prey. It’s a hunt that, like any genuine pursuit, can only ever lead one astray, in a process wherein, to cite Jean-Claude Milner, “discovering is going where one did not expect to go.” The question of language is one whose formulation, like its subject, is constantly self-differentiating, forever eluding its resolution or conclusion. Therein lies its vitality and its promise. Yet the vibrant diversity of human speech is increasingly threatened in our time by the accelerating pace of its uniformization, as well as the extinction of its most fragile and singular species. I do not know how much longer the cultures and idioms that I encountered in Brazil can survive, but I can only hope that they will outlast the delirious equations of the insatiable marketplace that surrounds them.


[Table of contents]

The Brain Issue #33

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